darTZeel CTH-8550 integrated amplifier Page 2

A major fault of conventional integrated amplifiers is lack of get-up-and-go. Sure, lots of them have "rated" outputs of 150–200Wpc, but hook 'em up to a difficult load and they wimp out. Not, apparently, the CTH-8550. It drove the Thiel CS3.7 and YG Anat Reference II Pro speakers as easily as it did the benign Klipsch Palladium 39Fs.

Progress is not an illusion
Sonically, the CTH-8550 was very much a twin of darTZeel's NHB-108 power amp: fast, dynamic, and detailed. On "Skeleton," from the Ginger Baker Trio's Falling Off the Roof (CD, Atlantic 82900-2), the CTH-8550 balanced the power of Charlie Haden's bass against Baker's controlled marching beat (is there such a thing as a contemplative march?)—Haden and Baker seemed to inhabit separate acoustics, with Baker in a larger, more reverberant room. Bill Frisell's guitar is the real star here, and the darTZeel let it "jump." Harmonic overtones sparkled and lingered—the amp was very quiet, so I heard deep into what, with other components, would have been the background. Haden's bass, too, had convincing slam—even though it was close-miked, Frisell's guitar was not given remotely similar heft.

That sense of scale and deep immersion in the acoustic was also evident in "Linden Lea," from the all-women chamber vocal group Angelica's The Beautiful Treasure: Songs from Near & Far (CD, Angelica). Recorded in the South Presbyterian Church at Dobbs Ferry, New York, by Len Moskowitz, the singers are placed deep in the acoustic—and through the CTH-8550, very deep. On "Over the Hills," the chorus is joined by hurdy-gurdy and hand drums, and the differences in scale were extremely well delineated by the darTZeel. Then there was the setting of Loreena McKennitt's "Tango to Evora," which again adds the hand drum plus a guitar—and sets soprano Melanie Anderson against a gentle wash of harmonies. It's a quiet song, and a very passionate one. The CTH-8550 preserved all of that while giving me intense goose bumps. Analytic it may be, but cold? Not hardly! (If you're a fan of John Atkinson's recordings of Cantus, you should just go ahead and buy Len Moskowitz's Angelica discs—they're fabulous in completely different registers.)

Guitarist David Russell's For David: Music Written for David Russell (CD, Telarc CD-80707), recorded in Telarc International's preferred venue for Russell, the Peggy and Owen Gordon Center for the Performing Arts in Owings Mills, Maryland, has a completely different sonic perspective. Here the guitar is recorded relatively closely, but there's still plenty of acoustic support. Producer Elaine Martone and engineer Thomas Knab chose that perspective wisely, since these adventurous modern works get fast and furious—and, at times, in your face. A case in point is Benjamin Verdery's Now and Ever II, which uses an alternate tuning (D, G, A, A-sharp, E) and opens in an explosion of chords, followed by a flurry of measures in 7/8, 6/8, and 5/8. It's devilishly complex, for all that Russell aces it, and the CTH-8550 sorted it out a treat—yes, the guitar was very up-front, but the hall sound informed and supported the fundamental tones without blurring them.

Spoon's "Don't You Evah," from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (CD, Merge MRG295), had impact a-plenty through the darTZeel. The bouncy bass-and-drum intro had impact and momentum—the song is virtually constructed as it rolls along ("Record that, Jim"), and by the time the vocals enter, guitars, maracas, and hand-claps have appeared. The power and crunch of Jim Eno's drums were particularly evident through the CTH-8550. It rawked. "The Ghost of You Lingers" features a completely different soundscape—layered and complex, with instruments like shakuhachi and sound effects—but it, too, was beautifully parsed by the CTH-8550. The darTZeel had me going back again and again for more—and more is what I always got.

To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle
I still had on hand the Boulder 865 integrated amplifier ($12,000), and it seemed natural to compare the darTZeel to it. The Boulder also features microprocessor-control of its set-up , has nearly infinite adjustability, and packs a wallop—150Wpc into 8 ohms or 300Wpc into 4 ohms. Also like the CTH-8550, the 865 is meticulously constructed and beautifully engineered. And heavy.

Just as I indicted my own susceptibility in comparing the Boulder to high-end solid-state separates, it was frustratingly difficult to discover any meaningful differences between the 865 and the CTH-8550. Both were dynamic, offered layered three-dimensional soundstages, and were quieter than the grave. Neither amplifier had a sonic signature—both had neutral neutrality and sheer transparency.

Yet there were some subtle differences in perspective. On "Skeleton," the 865 gave Haden's bass a tad more impact. Just a shade—and that's not to say the CTH-8550 lacked bass extension or impact. However, the airiness of "Tango for Evora" was ever so slightly better served by the darTZeel, especially Melanie Anderson's soaring lead. "Did You Evah" rocked just a touch harder through the Boulder—again, it had just a bit more impact down under. The CTH-8550 certainly didn't lack for authority, but I thought the 865 had that extra gram and a half of snap.

Except for those extremely minor changes in sonic perspective, the Boulder 865 and the darTZeel CTH-8550 were functionally equivalent. Essentially, they're the two finest integrated amplifiers I have auditioned.

Happiness can exist only in acceptance
We proponents of the High End are fond of citing "intangibles" such as pride of ownership and the satisfaction of knowing you own The Best. These are real and quite considerable—and the darTZeel CTH-8550 delivers them in spades. It is a genre-defining product: a contender for The Best by anyone's definition of the term.

From an engineering perspective, the CTH-8550 is very cannily sorted out. It won't set the thermostat for you, or cook your bacon and eggs, but it can be programmed to do just about anything you could desire from an audio component. And it is hand-built in Switzerland, which means it represents the pinnacle of construction. But all of that comes at a price: $20,300.

I don't think for a moment that darTZeel is price-gouging. All of the metalwork and custom componentry, not to mention that hand-hewn Swiss precision, undoubtedly does cost a lot, but the question of value rests not on whether a price is fair, but whether it's right. Much as I admired, even loved the CTH-8550, my inability to forget its price indicates that it isn't the right price for me.

But love it I did. Using it made me feel good, which is what that "pride of ownership" thing is all about. It was about as transparent a window onto recordings as I have ever heard. And because darTZeel products are a little quirky—a Control for dialing in Less or More Pleasure, ho-ho—they reflect the personality of their creator, Hervé Delétraz, which made me feel a personal connection to the manufacturer. All of those elements do create added values—albeit values that are completely subjective and personal.

I was floored by the CTH-8550's quality, performance, and convenience. It is a dream component. Unfortunately, dreaming is about as close as this humble scribe can come to owning one.

darTZeel Audio SA
US distributor: Blue Light Audio
4160 SW Greenleaf Drive
Portland, OR 97221
(503) 221-0465